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What the Mast Brothers Scandal Tells Us About Ourselves

It's all about our discomfort with the dark truths of capitalism!

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In the course of the last few weeks' gleeful public excoriation of Brooklyn chocolate company Mast Brothers, there have been many things said, many things accused, many things denied. Among it all, there are a few things of which we can be sure. First, that at some point early in their operations — somewhere in 2007 or so — brothers Rick and Michael Mast made some chocolate bars using commercial Valrhona chocolate that they melted, reformed, and sold under their label. Second, that they probably don't do that anymore. Third, that at some point in their past lives, the famously bearded brothers did not, in fact, have beards.


That's it. And that's strange, really, considering the pitch of the media coverage surrounding those revelations. There has been background chatter for years about the low quality of Mast Brothers chocolate, and it seems that among the chocolate cognoscenti, there's long been skepticism at the brothers' claim that they've always, without exception, produced bean-to-bar chocolate. ("Bean to bar" being generally understood to mean that the cocoa beans are processed in-house.) So why did it all explode now? And why is it exploding so hugely?

While the current saga of the Mast Brothers has taken on the swirling, un-anchored form of all great scandals, its point of origination is on the website Dallasfood.org, which recently published a four-part series investigating the chocolate makers' sourcing in their early years of operation. That got picked up by Quartz, which in turn got picked up — and expanded upon — by numerous publications, including Eater. Readers are eating it up. Twitter is buzzing with it. Everyone, it seems, is obsessed with this story. But why?

Our delight at their downfall truly reveals how we as a consumer culture lie to ourselves about being consumers of culture.

Dallasfood.org has done this sort of investigative takedown before. In 2006, Scott Craig, the site's proprietor, published a series of ten stories over eight days diving into the business practices of a Texas-based chocolate company, Noka, which was infamous for selling the most expensive chocolate in the world. Craig's Noka exposé is a remarkable work of independent journalism: in the course of several thousand words, he fully blows open a phenomenally corrupt business, proving incontrovertibly that the couple behind the operation had from day one systematically lied about the sourcing, origins, and value of virtually all their chocolate, all the while marking up their product over six thousand percent.

With its Hollywood-worthy mix of hard-nosed sleuthing and esoteric chocolate detail, Craig's Noka takedown makes for thrilling, riveting reading, plus there's that exquisite eat-the-rich conclusion — who wouldn't feel a ripple of pleasure at learning that people who were shelling out $2000 a pound for a chocolate "tasting experience" were getting wholly, cruelly ripped off? Craig turned to a similar formula with his Mast Brothers opus: it's also a multi-part procedural taking the reader through his sleuthing process, complete with embedded emails, mysterious sources, and enjoyably thorough insider looks into the world of high-end chocolate connoisseurship. But compared to the den of thieves he uncovered with his Noka investigation — and compared to the ever-growing mushroom cloud his coverage of the Masts has resulted in — the crimes he seems to have found are oddly small-stakes.

That's not to say they're not crimes at all. There was definitely some sort of smoke-and-mirrors thing going on with the Masts' use of couverture in their early years. There definitely remains some misleading storytelling about the brand's history as chocolate makers, rather than chocolatiers. And without a doubt, the Mast brothers themselves aren't helping with their slippery equivocations about the phrase "bean to bar," their unsympathetic complaints about this scandal keeping them away from their families, and their ridiculous assertion that everyone who has exchanged money for a Mast Brothers chocolate bar has, in fact, "lovingly purchased" it.

But there isn't much else — well, outside of some repackaged Valrhona chocolate from eight years ago. In fact, most of what's under the hood here is schadenfreude, a certain enjoyable feeling of inevitable confirmation. A satisfying thunk, like the door closing in a well-made German car, at the acknowledgment that this brand — that always seemed a little too perfect, a little too likely to have sprung fully formed from the somberly pomaded head of the Brooklyn Maker God — turned out to be, in some tiny and long-past but nevertheless independently verified way, entirely full of shit.

We buy into stories of value and authenticity all the time, and not just when it comes to chocolate.

The story of Mast Brothers' success is essentially a story of packaging. It always has been — if you had to construct the platonic ideal of a Brooklandia business, you couldn't do better than Mast Brothers, whose product seemed to be the perfect marriage between thoughtful graphic design, object fetishization, and artisanal foodstuff. I remember sitting in a bar years ago with a few fellow food writers, all of us tipsily marveling at how lucky the Masts were that even their surname was a cool, one-syllable hipster noun. And sure, the chocolate may not have been very good, but never apparently bad enough to have an effect on business. Given everything, really, what our delight at their downfall truly reveals, more than anything, is how we as a consumer culture lie to ourselves about being consumers of culture.

One of the ascendant virtues of the new culinary landscape is the murky, poorly defined quality of authenticity. It's an idea that means wildly different things depending on who's saying it and what they're applying it to, but in all circumstances it boils down to a fundamental notion of quality by fiat: if something is authentic, it is necessarily good. Authenticity implies a purity of history, a purity of purpose — in short, if something is authentic, it isn't enjoyed because we've been barraged with external indicators that have instructed us to enjoy it; it's enjoyed because it is inherently enjoyable. Inauthentic things need to be marketed and positioned and sold. Authentic things simply exist, and are perfect, and in their perfection they handily sell themselves.

Of course, authenticity itself is something that has to be conveyed, and with their serene packaging, austere typefaces, and stolid fraternal affiliation, Rick and Michael Mast have constructed a company that declares its authenticity so loudly that it may as well be screaming in your ear. The people dancing gleefully on the revelation that Mast Brothers chocolate was "crap all along" don't, for the most part, actually care about the quality of the chocolate. They care that the scrim of authenticity has been pierced, that they can look at a story and know with clarity that they are being sold that story.

This is why the Mast Brothers story has taken on legs even when other, more deserving takedowns haven't — like Noka, which really was just mindblowing in its fraudulence — and it's not a value judgment to say that the engine of the story is schadenfreude, not really. If you've willfully abstained from consuming any Mast Brothers products except on occasions when you want to confirm your disdain, and you want to revel in the discovery of a crack in the veneer of these otherwise flawless Kinfolk ubermenschen, my God, please do it. But there's also no shame in having bought a bar of Mast Brothers chocolate. There's no shame in having eaten some. There's no shame in having liked it.

Some of this absolution I'm bestowing thanks to the golden rule of food: if it tastes good, it is good. Something tasting good doesn't mean it's virtuous or that it's authentic, just that it's good, which is generally enough to justify a purchase. But far more is due to the simple, inescapable ubiquity of carefully constructed goods just like the Masts' chocolate bars— we buy and sell stories every day, with almost every transaction, often in far more egregious ways than have been done with the Masts. These stories live in the space between how much something costs to make, and how much a customer is willing to pay to buy it; another word for them is branding, a dirty word largely because it stands in direct opposition to the virtue of authenticity.

Branding and authenticity together make up the cornerstones of consumption and identity performance. We make choices of what to buy and what to display, and through those choices we construct (or, oh fondest hope, reflect) our identities and affiliations. Price — and the perception of value — is an essential part of that. The perception of value is what allows Lexus to sell a souped-up Toyota Camry as an ES350, or for Vertu to take the guts of a Nokia phone, glue on a mother-of-pearl veneer, and drop on a price tag of twenty grand, or why some people will buy a J. Crew sweater today at full price even though it is definitely going to be 40 percent off by Thursday. Perhaps more relevant to the consumers of artisan culinary goods: it's what lets a boutique bourbon label simply decant some spirits they bought wholesale into new bottles, limit the release numbers, and watch the whiskey world flip out for it.

So, where do the Mast brothers fit into this? Even after a week of intense media scrutiny looking out for any possible error, it appears to be the case that they're not actually selling anything under false pretenses, nor have they been for some time. Their only crimes at present are selling their chocolate at ten bucks a bar, and being exemplars of a certain eyeroll-magnet type of hipsterdom, and having beards so iconic that they're immortalized in parody. (But I repeat myself.) Put another way, they've been converted in the eyes of the public from humble purveyors of authenticity (laudable) to hawkish sellers of branded goods (deplorable).

Most of what's under the hood here is schadenfreude, a certain enjoyable feeling of inevitable confirmation.

(The bizarre point of obsession that the brothers did not always have beards is fascinatingly representative of this whole thing — a friend pointed out that the gotcha-style glee with which people are sharing their pre-beard photos — almost as if it's evidence of the depth of their inauthenticity and betrayal — is awfully reminiscent of popular reaction when the bearded dudes from Duck Dynasty were outed as not always having had facial hair. It's incredibly strange.)

Regardless of which of those positions is accurate, the whole to-do reveals far more about us than it does about them. We buy into stories of value and authenticity all the time, and not just when it comes to chocolate. They're built into almost every purchase, almost every lifestyle choice. But when one of those many instances is revealed — as it has been with Mast Brothers — there's this immediate response of horror and disgust and a knee-jerk urge to distance ourselves from the offending product. At its root, this deep desire to buy things because their allure is real and inherent, not because we're being sold on them, speaks to a fundamental dissatisfaction with capitalism itself. But you can't opt out of capitalism, Bernie Sanders be damned, so here are Rick and Michael Mast, a convenient pair of scapegoats, who can absolve us of our complicity in the system.

It's okay to hate this. It's also okay to embrace it. But either way, it is something we need to look at with clear eyes: dozens of high-profile, influential news outlets have written countless articles about a scandal that boils down to a couple hundred chocolate bars* made nearly a decade ago. To be sure, the scrutiny has revealed the Masts to be shoddy in a crisis, and given voice to innumerable beard jokes, and presented those who are delicate of palate with another chance to mention that actually they've hated everything all along, but those are all secondary stories to the main one, which is, in the end, not really about Mast Brothers at all.

*Correction: I misread the original statement; the Mast Brothers say they used Valrhona couverture to produce several hundred bars a week, not in total, which over a period of several years amounts to many thousands of falsely identified chocolate bars. The scale of the deception is larger, but the broader point of this article — that the Masts' fraudulence is years-old news that we're collectively taking curiously personally, for reasons that merit exploration — isn't changed.

Helen Rosner is Eater's features editor
Header photo: Mast Brothers Chocolate

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